Community relations management systems in the minerals industry: combining conventional and stakeholder-driven approaches
There is no question that the mainstream minerals industry has now embraced, at least in principle, the notion of corporate social responsibility (CSR) – used here in its broadest sense to incorporate concepts of sustainable development, corporate social responsibility and corporate citizenship. Whether this shift in emphasis has been primarily driven by straightforward business imperatives, ethical considerations or some form of ‘enlightened self interest’ remains a matter for ongoing discussion. However, it is now generally not at issue that the industry has changed its approach, at least at the level of policy, language and organisational processes. Evidence of this new approach includes: the completion of the Mining Minerals and Sustainable Development (MMSD) process in 2002; the subsequent release of the International Council on Mining and Metals’ sustainable development principles; similar initiatives by national bodies such as the Minerals Council of Australia (2005); and the development and ongoing refinement by both large and small to medium-sized minerals companies of corporate responsibility policy frameworks, incorporating key aspects of international standards and guidelines.
Most of the larger minerals companies have had environmental policies and management frameworks in place for some time, but these are now being strengthened and expanded in response to a plethora of emerging global frameworks for corporate responsibility. This is in line with trends in other sectors such as tourism, chemical manufacture, agriculture and pharmaceuticals. Typically, corporate policies in the minerals industry now explicitly address a range of broader social justice objectives, including such aspects as local and indigenous employment, security and human rights, sustainable livelihoods, culture and heritage, social impact assessment, ethical procurement and stakeholder and/or community consultation. Increasingly, these policies are focused not only on mitigating the negative impacts of mining on the environment and people, but also on delivering sustainable benefits for local, regional and even global communities. At the level of process, there is a growing emphasis on the need to adopt a more participatory and inclusive approach to interacting with stakeholders, including local communities.
Although minerals companies have made considerable progress at the level of policy and language, translating these policy commitments into improved practices at the site level remains one of the industry’s toughest challenges. Historically, the community relations function has been marginalised and under-resourced, especially in comparison to production-related functions. Community relations has often been equated with public relations, in which organisational self-promotion and protection, rather than community development and engagement, have been seen as the primary goals. Community issues have also typically been dealt with in a reactive, ad hoc manner, rather than as part of a broader strategy.
In an effort to improve their ‘on-the-ground’ performance in community relations, some minerals companies are now investing considerable resources in developing and implementing management systems for community relations. This entails an extension of the approach being taken in other dimensions of sustainable development, such as occupational health and safety (OH&S) and environmental management. As described in more detail below, the elements of these systems typically include an annual planning process, detailed documentation of procedures, regular reviews and audits against defined corporate standards, and a strong focus on information management.
The extension of the management systems approach to the community sphere represents a significant change in approach, and raises some important policy questions. The standard systems approach is very process-oriented, as exemplified by the ‘Plan Do Check Act’ cycle, often called the Deming cycle, which establishes a continuous feedback loop for managers to identify and change the parts of the process that needs improvement. This conventional approach works well for standardised production processes and routine activities, but may be problematic when applied to the fluid and often conflictual world of community relations. Also, while the adoption of management systems may lead to greater internal efficiencies, this does not necessarily translate into better outcomes for consumers and other external stakeholders.
This article aims to encourage deeper reflection and further discussion about the utility of applying management systems thinking to the sphere of community relations. The analysis draws on the authors' direct involvement and experience across a wide range of consulting and research projects within the minerals industry concerning the management of community relations at the operating level. This experience extends to minerals operations in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, North and South America, and Australia and New Zealand. Drawing on this experience, authors argue that the move to systematise the community relations function at the site level has had a number of benefits, but also some potential drawbacks. Unless these tensions are understood and addressed, minerals companies will find it difficult to further the objectives of sustainable development ‘on the ground’.